Cruise Junkies

I’ve written at some length about cruise etiquette (or lack thereof). You can find it in my blog, Thinking Allowed in the archives for Jan 20, 2009 at a post entitled Cruising at the Bottom of the World.   I’m now convinced that entire sociology texts could be written about this subject, and further I’m hereby positing that the social norms of any particular cruise are heavily influenced by the demographics of the instant cruisers. To wit: our recent ten day cruise of the western Caribbean.  Let me explain.

The demographics and the resultant on-board groupings are determined by several factors.  Obviously the cruise itinerary, including the ports of embarkation and debarkation are high on the list of things that may sway the composition of the cruisers.  For example, our most recent cruise departed from Barbados which retains its strong historical linkage to the British Empire; thus, our ship was chock-a-bloc with Brits who had just spent a few days in their very own tropical England away from the real England before boarding.  Odd thing about traveling Brits, wherever they go they tend to congregate at places pretending to be what they just left at home.  You know, the pretend pubs and eating establishments serving poor imitations of steak and kidney pie or bangers and mash.  Other Europeans, Germans and Italians, most particularly, tend to gravitate to this type of trip as well because, well, I guess it’s because they’ve had to live cheek by jowl with the Brits for so long, in good times and in bad, that they are more comfortable with them than say, Americans or Russians.

If you’re good at geography and history you’ll know that the various island groupings of the Caribbean were colonized and pretty well plundered by European powers of the day, and we still see the evidences of that particular dark part of recent history.  The French (St. Barts), the Dutch (St. Martins), Cuba (Spain), Barbados and others (UK), Aruba (the Portuguese) all still seem to maintain a curious form of proprietary interest and a feeling of home-away-from-home in these tropical enclaves.  Having said that, while, as I indicated there were plenty of Brits aboard, there was nary a citizen of Portugal in sight, even though Aruba was one of the highlighted ports of call.

Time of year also is a significant influence on who our shipmates will be.  This particular trip was in mid-March when there is both school holidays and an absence of sun in the British Isles and continental Europe. From my own time living London, I can assure you that anyone with two nickels or two euros to rub together was making a mad dash for a holiday in the sun.  The Algarve in Portugal and the Costa del Sol, the typical landing spots for these sojourners, were still evidencing the last vestiges of winter, and even North Africa, which the more adventurous European traveler might gravitate towards, did not have enough steady sunshine the get the highly sought after one week body burn.  So the Caribbean it is.

Certainly the $$$ of the cruise selects out or in certain of the economic strata.  With tariffs starting out high and reaching the nosebleed level very quickly, one is not likely to be confronted with the average punter from the corner pub.  As this particular cruise was offered by one of the “luxury” brand names and was “all inclusive,” both the net worth and the age of the guest tended toward the high end of the range.  The “all inclusive” in cruising lingo can have a myriad of meanings, but certainly they all convey the right to quaff all the booze you desire with no additional cost.  This, of course, leads to some interesting social outcomes.

Oh, I haven’t mentioned one additional factor which tends to have an out-sized effect on the dynamics of the crowd.  Singles.  While singles are discriminated against economically (they have to pay a fifty percent premium for their right to not share a room with a spouse or significant other), they also get some special treatment.  Every cruise that I’ve been on has escorts to entertain the ladies among the singles crowd.  You know…they chat them up during the single’s cocktail hours, become bridge partners with needed, and, most importantly, they dance with them whenever the band strikes up.  Which is pretty often.  I dunno what the single guys do for social interaction as there are no female escorts, at least none that I could detect.  We’ve actually met some delightful solo travelers along the way.  I remember fondly an elegant lady of indeterminate age whose husband had been a small town vicar, but had recently deceased.  She decided to see and meet the world and was doing quite well at it.

Then there are the smokers.  Yes, they are still here amongst us but, admittedly, in smaller numbers…except for the Italians.  Cruise rules are now pretty strict about where one can take a puff, but they do have their designated areas.  One table on the pool deck was entirely devoted to this pursuit and was dominated by a gaggle of Italians that created a haze of blue smoke over their area.  They smoked and drank wine and smoked…morning, noon, and night.  I never saw them do anything else or or off the ship.

So there you have the demographic segmentation of a spring cruise in the Caribbean:

  1.  The Americans, who are everywhere and, for the most part, behave fairly well.
  2.  The Euros (Brits, Germans, Italians, and a scattering of Scandinavians).  Who are eternally looking for someplace like home. Oddly, the French don’t often join the European gaggle.  It’s not that they don’t cruise, they just don’t cruise on ships where the predominant language is English.  So French!
  3.  The Singles (discussed above).
  4.  The Smokers (also discussed above).
  5.  The Gays.  More on them later.
  6.  The Lifer Cruisers.  These people have been everywhere and most places twice.  And love to tell you about every place they’ve ever been, and then tell you again.

I referred above to the gay demographic, who I must say, are always amongst the friendliest and most well behaved of all.  Indeed, on this sailing though the western Caribbean, S (my darling wife, Sandra) and I met and socialized with a delightful gay couple who owned and operated a retail bakery in Ohio.  The curious thing is, without an exact accounting, it always seems that their numbers aboard ship are disproportionate to their presence in society at home.  I know I’m on the verge of getting in deep sociological waters here, but I wonder if it’s that they like to travel more, have more money, or just that they have an innate sense of adventure.  Or, maybe they’re not different at all.

Come to think of it, perhaps it’s in the nature of cruise ships.  To be diversified that is.  And perhaps that’s what appeals to me.  Where else could one – meet and talk to the widow of a vicar from England embarking on her first trip abroad – inadvertently insult the private secretary to Prince Phillip (to which I plead guilty) by suggesting that the concept of a royal family was well past its sell-by date –  initiate a long term friendship with a compatible couple from Santa Fe – engage on the periphery of a Brit and American discussing heatedly the merits of warm vs. cold beer – enjoy watching an elegant, older Spanish woman dancing the tango with a ship’s escort – meeting a young Japanese couple who spoke no English enjoy strolling the deck hand in hand – or watch as a wheelchair bound octogenarian satisfies a life long ambition by having the deck crew lower him to touch his seventh continent.  It is a form of socializing by force majeur.  You are thrown together with a few hundred people from around the globe, and with whom you will share the next 7, 14 or 21 days in the luxurious setting of a sea-going vessel and visiting pre-selected sites that you will now share in common.

Oh, btw, one of our very favorite things to do is to take advantage of the maitre d’s capacity to seat you at a table of eight complete strangers, and enjoy (or not) ninety minutes of food and conversation that you would never experience anywhere else.

One last thought about the Caribbean in general and the western Caribbean in particular.  There are real people there, living or struggling to live real lives.  The glamor of the ship and the all inclusive resorts fades very quickly and not very far from the water’s edge.  That is both the charm and the sadness of the islands.

My favorite experience this trip was in a small port village on the north side of the Dominican Republic.  There was really nothing there, at least from a luxury cruiser’s perspective. No great native restaurants, no shopping for local designer goods, not even a good t-shirt shop.  But as the driver we had hired for a couple of hours was showing us what there was to see, I saw a small, somewhat dilapidated baseball stadium off the main road.  I asked the driver to stop.  There were a number of young Dominicans practicing.  I mean seriously practicing.  I walked over closer to the field with a camera and asked the nearest young man if I could take some photos.  “Si,” he said.  He spoke little English and my Spanish is pathetic.  But somehow we talked for a while about baseball, and he asked me what America was like.  I answered as best I could.  We shook hands as I departed, and I thought… Maybe this is why we travel.





Cruising at the Bottom of the World

Cruising through a phalanx of icebergs, accompanied by whales creates a different construct for the normal cruising ambience.

Everyone within the sound of my voice in the past several months knows that the darling wife (DW) and I scratched a long term itch by taking a voyage from Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Argentina through the Drake Passage to the mysterious and pristine continent of Antarctica.  My descriptive language fails me, and I can only say that what we found exceeded any expectations we had.  During the course of the cruise, in addition to setting foot on the seventh continent, we saw and learned about 2000 year old glaciers and the icebergs they spawn, four species of penguins, four species of seals, five species of whales, and fifteen species of birds (many of which are only seen in these parts) and two hundred types of homo sapiens. You’ll be relieved to know that I’m not going to describe herein the innumerable icebergs or the assorted wild critters (even though the penguins are mighty cute).  Those of you who aren’t nimble enough to escape will be forced, sooner or later, to view my photos of same.    I am, however, going to spend some time describing the homo sapiens and their behavior while cruising.  I should say, first of all, that this cruise and it’s inhabitants were not of the normal sort.  That is to say that the ship had, in lieu of a casino populated with one armed bandits, an large library with an extraordinary collection of fiction, non-fiction, and materials related to Antarctic exploration, and the flora and fauna of Antarctica.  The other cruise ships I’ve been on had libraries as well, but they usually contained a few well thumbed John Grisham novels, a couple of back issues of People magazine, and a Parchesi set with missing pieces.  It had no stage show, no bad comedians, and no over sized, matronly cruise directors organizing shuffle board and bridge tournaments.  We had only watching each other, lectures, and the nature around us. As one might imagine, this type cruise tends to self select a somewhat different constituency than your average Disney cruise.  What we had here was a relatively homogeneous group in terms of age, economics, education and interests……and absolutely no kids.  Ok, there was one 15 year old, but that was it.  The age, economic level, and educational level were all high and the interest was broad and deep.  We had our share of retired CEO’s, diplomats, trust fund types, and that ilk.  We also several octogenerians who all insisted on participating in every activity; even if the activity was clearly beyond their physical limits.  The national diversity of the group added another pleasant dimension to the character of the group.  About half were Americans, 20% Brits, then Canadians, Indians (one very lovely young lady traveling with her charming parents), Aussies, Chinese (who moved only in a pack of eight), French, Italians, Germans, Portuguese, Columbian, Argentinians, South African, and New Zealanders. There were others from Greece, The Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, and Hong Kong.  The crew was equally diverse and added to the mix with Russia, Philippines, Uruguay. Costa Rica , Poland, Bulgaria, and Ukraine also being represented.  A veritable and enjoyable United Nations of folks all in a relatively small space. English was the lingua franca, but if one listened closely, you could hear a veritable potpourri of other languages as well. We met a British gentleman who, as his wife warned during a conversation about the Royal Family, works for the Royal Family as the head of Prince Phillip’s office.  We met a American who not only owned Harley Davidson dealerships, but wore some type of Harley regalia every day to every function.  We also met Tom B., who Google characterizes as one of the legendary wildcatters of the Texas oil industry.  More about Tom later.  We met Thomas C. (I don’t know what Tom does, but he obviously does well at it, but was notable by virtue of the fact that he went to Potomac Elementary School in Potomac, Md. circa the same time as our own children.  We enjoyed the recently retired rector of a village parish (or whatever they call it) of the Church of England.  We shared dinner and drinks with a doctor from Florida who made his money doing knees, and satisfied his urge for public service by serving as a state senator for ten years.  We met a recent widow from Sussex who had determined to see and experience the world she had not seen while married.  We became friends with Tom and Trisha S. from Santa Fe whose lives paralleled our own to a great extent.  We met Aussies who enjoyed their beer and called everyone mate.  We had cocktails with a group from Oxford, Mississippi that traveled the world together.  One member of this group entertained us with a feverish “gaiter” at our impromptu dance-a-thon.  He later boasted that now he could say he’d done the gaiter on all seven continents.  In the spirit of the moment, I let it slide that he was on a boat and not on the 7th continent. We ate too much, drank too much, slept too little, exerted ourselves beyond reason, and socialized non-stop….200 people of disparate but similar backgrounds, thrown together for ten days is an interesting alchemy.  One that perhaps should be studied by future cultural anthropologists.  This is how it starts. “Hi my name is Louisa, and this is my husband Clarence.  We’re from Darien, Connecticut and Esmeralda Island, Florida.”  (I wondered at first how one could be from two places, and then I got it).  I’d reply, “Hi there, I’m Gary and this is my darling wife S.  We’re from Dallas and our ranch in Fannin County.”  (No one is going to out do me by being from more than one place.)  Louisa (or whoever) would quickly throw in, “have you taken this cruise before?  This is our fourth time….we just want to keep checking on global warming.  We try to cruise at least three months each year.  Have you sailed before?”  “Yes,” I’d say.  “We just did the east coast of South America last year.”  Clarence would quickly add, “we did BA and Iguazo Falls twenty five years ago.  Bad case of malaria though; but not as bad as that dysentery in Bora Bora in ’88”.  Thinking quickly, I’d throw in something about the architecture of Krakow and they would raise with St. Petersburg.  I’d double down with the majesty of the water tower lights in Kuwait City at night, and be trumped by a trek through the Himalayas.  I’d try to flank them with the Egyptian Arabians horses we breed, and Louisa would talk about her nephew’s polo ponies in the Hamptons.  I’d fire a shot about my son-in-law’s investment bank and that my sons bought and sold shopping centers, and Clarence would counter with his son’s partnership in Goldman Sachs, and his brother who built office buildings in mid-town Manhattan.  Sandra would get in the fray with her anecdote of the Indian jewelry merchant who followed her from Delhi to Jaipur reducing his prices as he travelled, and Clarence would guffaw and relate his adventure in buying raw opals on the Zambezi from a very shady character for $.10 on the dollar.  And this is all before we even said a word about our grandkids. The great thing was you got to repeat this set piece another thirty or forty times during the course of the ten day voyage.  S. said in mid cruise, “this kind of stuff is right up your alley, isn’t it Gary”.  I admitted I’d never had a better time, and wished the cruise was a few days longer so I could meet them all. Well, there’s always another cruise.